LOS ANGELES – If you ever think a cat is looking at you like it wants to pounce, blame its ancestors.
“A lot of the behaviors they demonstrate are very similar to ones we would observe in wildcats,” says Gavin Boyland, producer of “Super Cats: A Nature Miniseries.” “They’ve been bred for centuries to reduce the amount of danger they would pose to us, but a lot of the behavioral traits are quite similar.”
In the upcoming PBS miniseries, Boyland’s team tracks 31 of the 40 species of wildcats and shows some behaviors on film for the first time.
Among the findings: “Cats in the wild (are) very individual,” Boyland says. “We could see distinct behavioral traits in a particular animal if we were following it over a few weeks.”
Big cats – lions, tigers and leopards – are the ones most familiar to people. But “small cats” have some interesting behaviors. The rusty-spotted cat, for example, is two-thirds the size of a domestic cat. Following one of them, Boyland’s photographers discovered they do, indeed, have a curiosity that guides them.
“Cats have incredible senses. They have an amazing sense of smell, amazing hearing, amazing eyesight. All of those senses combined means they’re always fascinated in their surroundings.”
Rusty-spotted cats have whiskers that are like a sixth sense, Boyland says. “They’re able to detect and feel their surroundings by their whiskers.”
Among the things you’ll see in “Super Cats” is a caracal leaping 10 feet in the air and swiping and capturing birds. Fred Kaufman, the executive producer of “Nature,” says the miniseries is designed to show cats most people have never seen or heard of.
“What I find so captivating is you look at any cat and they’re absolutely beautiful and mesmerizing to look at and yet they’re all deadly killers,” he says.
Boyland says they're also notoriously difficult to film: “They’re elusive. They’re cryptic. They can vanish in an instant. They know they’re being watched as well. When we do find them, they’re so charismatic and they’re so captivating.”
To produce enough footage, Boyland’s team used low-light cameras and filmed them during the night, simply because so many are nocturnal.
“In Costa Rica, we used a thermal camera to film jaguars in pitch-black and we were able to see them hunting nesting sea turtles along a beach,” Boyland says. “For a sequence with cheetahs, we actually modified an all-terrain buggy with a super-slow-motion camera, which can film up to a thousand frames per second. We were able to get really close-up shots of it running in super slow motion.”
Among the other findings: Cats are quite intelligent. Natalia Borrego, an American scientist, is researching their intelligence and she has found there’s a link to social intelligence – animals that live in complex social groups.
Because lions live in prides, they need intelligence to exploit the resources in their territories, Boyland says. “It could be that we’ve misunderstood cat intelligence and they’re smarter than you think.”
Living in a pride gives lions strength. “You could consider it superhuman,” Boyland says. “The eyesight is incredible as well." In the sequence about jaguars hunting, "you could see this jaguar walking down the beach and (it) could see perfectly well. Their eyesight’s stronger than ours.”
“Super Cats” airs Wednesdays on PBS beginning Oct. 24. It runs through Nov. 7.